General Manager Kyle Dubas addressed the media on Marlies locker cleanout day this weekend, discussing the special year that was for the Marlies, the preparation for the Entry Draft and free agency, Sheldon Keefe’s status moving forward, Timothy Liljegren’s development, and much more.
On the Marlies
How many of these Marlies, do you think, will be in the mix for jobs?
Dubas: I think a lot more than before the run started because of the impression they were able to make on the whole staff and to see what they were able to do in a very tough environment. I think some guys really, really stepped up as the year went on and when things weren’t going great for them, and they were excellent in the playoffs for us here. They’ll get their time off here. It’s a short summer, but I think it keeps you pretty focused. You get three or four weeks here and then you have eight weeks to train and be ready to roll for next year.
How would you assess Timothy Liljegren’s first year?
Dubas: We had to make a decision at the start of the year where it was, “Do we have him go back to Rogle? Do we have him go to Niagara? Do we have him stay here?” We set out a plan and an exact process for him, which was going to be a reduced game schedule. We knew he was going to get the World Juniors. The key for me was, if he could come into the playoffs and be in the lineup every game in the playoffs, that would be great. But more importantly, the way that he developed defensively, the way that he was able to stand in and bounce back when things didn’t go well… I thought Game 5 in Texas, with Dermott hurt, that was the best game of his entire season. He made some excellent plays. The way he was able to stand in as the playoffs got very difficult and continue to make plays and get better is a massive experience for him. He was the youngest player playing by a pretty wide margin. I thought, even though his minutes at times in certain games when it wasn’t going well for him, were limited, I still think the minutes he accrued over the years – and more importantly the development that he did off the ice – was outstanding.
His commitment, his focus every day to reaching his potential – he is a very quiet, modest guy – was unbelievable. I thought it was a great year for him. Looking back on it, you can always kind of go through the choices you made, and I thought it was absolutely the right choice. It was great to see him partake in every game in the playoffs. Outstanding.
After spending the last four years building this team, what are the emotions now handing the reigns over to Laurence?
Dubas: A lot easier going out this way than any other way, for sure. Laurence is going to be great. The relationships aren’t really going to go anywhere. This is the easiest way possible to walk out of here today. I’ll still be around. I like to watch lots of hockey, so it’s five minutes away. I’ll just come over and watch as much as I can. That’s just how we’ll do it.
How important was it that, even after you were named GM of the Leafs, they said you were here every day, you were on the road with them when you could, and just stayed true to what the Marlies were doing?
Dubas: The people here – I’ve asked a lot from them throughout the year. I put a lot of pressure and demands on our players and our staff day in and day out, so I feel that the only thing I can pay them back and owe them is to be here and help them; to help them reach their potential and give them resources as staff and as players. They have given me that the whole entire year and really the four years I’ve been here. There was not a chance I was going to reduce my commitment and my time. That was one thing I talked to Brendan about during that whole process. The whole organization saw this as an important Spring for this group. Really, it was a pleasure for me to be here every day. They are making it seem like it was something more than it was. I think they maybe have it a bit wrong in that it was just as much my pleasure. I was more enthused to be around them.
Fans and media – everyone is getting to know each other with you, fans, and the media. That picture of you getting the Cup – did you expect that emotion to bubble up like that, showing your competitive side and emotional side there?
Dubas: That’s me, I guess. When things are exciting, I get excited. I try to always maintain calm and be fairly stoic, but when things are exciting on that side of it, I think you should show your emotions. That was my wife’s number one request of me when I took the Leafs job – that I would still maintain that part of me. It won’t happen every single day, but if we get to June and things go our way, I’ll be excited. That’s what you can expect. Because it’s exciting; it’s a long road. You go through a lot with the people here in the course of a season. You have lots of ups and downs. For some of the people, I have worked with them for seven years. I was so excited for them. That’s just how it came out. I don’t apologize for it. That’s that.
Given the success Sheldon has had here, do you think you’re going to be able to keep him as a coach for next season?
Dubas: That’s a question more for Sheldon, I think. He’s earned everything that comes his way next. It’s been a great journey with him, however long it goes for. We’ll tackle that as it comes along and different opportunities present themselves for him, but he has earned everything that comes his way next, and I’m so excited and happy for him that he was able to be a part of this and lead this team to the win on Thursday.
The way he handled two instances in the Finals were the best I’ve ever seen him. I’ve heard some of the players tell him today about his evolution, but going into Game 5 in Auston, and then going into the Game 7 here after a difficult Game 6, if you’re looking at a coach, you want to know how they’re going to handle those ups and downs, especially in the highest pressure situation of the Finals. That was the best I’ve seen him. The Xs and Os part I never, ever worry about with him. Seeing his evolution and his presentation to the team, and his communication with the team and his leadership at those times when it’s tough…. Fear and doubt do creep in when you are in the road and you are in a Game 5 and you could go down 3-2, or you’re at home and now you’re going into Game 7 after not-a-great loss in Game 6… to see the way he handled that was unbelievable. That was a big, big reason why we won.
Have any other teams asked permission to talk to him?
Dubas: Not at this time.
You were really involved in Orlando with Drake and their staff – that kind of thing. How did the Growlers come together and how does that change things?
Dubas; I think it was a slam dunk for us with the team’s history in St. John’s. I had never been to St. John’s before I started with the Leafs and travelling out there with the Marlies. The first time we went there, to see the way that it’s really a Toronto Maple Leafs city and to see the amount of support for the Leafs and Marlies whenever we were there, and how they revere the staff – whether it’s Tom Watt or others who are members of our staff out there — it just seemed like a natural fit. Once they lose the American league team last year, it started with a brief conversation at the Board of Governors meetings with Glen Stanford. Glenny really made the whole thing come together through the year. It’s a natural fit for us. It keeps all of our players in Canada. Travel will be about the same for them as it was as it was to Orlando. It’s exciting and a great opportunity for us to continue to grow the Maple Leaf brand in an area where they love the Maple Leafs. It’s exciting for us.
Sheldon talked about his evolution since you two first got together. For you, how has that sort of changed or how have you changed in your evolution for the role you’re about to do?
Dubas: I don’t know… Other people can probably describe it better. I have been very, very fortunate during my time – Sault Ste. Marie and here – to be put in a position where I can learn a lot all the time. I’ve just always tried to take advantage of it. I think I have a lot to learn still. I think every day I can learn and get better. I owe it to the organization to be learning and improving all the time, to be evolving when things don’t go right, both in the Sault and with the Leafs and the Marlies. This is the first time it’s been this time of year and there hasn’t been major disappointment. I always felt I owed it to the coaches and the players – whether it was personnel or improving the way I operate, or different things that I can bring into the organization – for whatever organization was employing me to get better and improve our program. That’s all I’ve really tried to do. The specifics of it – they could probably tell you more than I could.
But I’ve been very fortunate to work with the people I’ve been able to work with. Sheldon, obviously, is the most noted one because we have been together for a very long time, but there has been a lot of support staff that has been a huge influence on me and helping me improve every day.
On the Draft & Free Agency
How quickly now do you turn the page and get ready for your first draft as the GM of the Maple Leafs?
Dubas: The draft preparation has been ongoing. It’s just some days I wish we had more hours with everything that has happened. The area directors of our scouting staff and Reid Mitchell have been unbelievable in helping to push the process along. We had scouting meetings all week during the day here this week. We had the combine. The schedule here – we owe these guys a lot. That second round series where we had that huge break, it perfectly coincided with the availability to start doing some preparation. Sorry – the third round, because that let me get to the combine. The Lehigh Valley series ending in four was huge for me because it let me get prepared for the draft more, and that just carried on all of this week. That’s obviously the major focus now, is draft and free agency.
What is your philosophy going into it? You have that late round pick. There will be a lot of moving parts with that. What’s your philosophy going into that first round?
Dubas: The positive that I say is that in 2015, having that 2015 draft under my belt is great. It’s not going to be an unknown going into the draft floor in Dallas in this position. In that draft, we had the 24th pick that we started with. We ended up moving back twice and ended up with Travis Dermott and Jeremy Bracco out of that. You kind of have a sense of how it goes. Being able to watch Lou the last two years at the draft has been a major boost for me… how he handled interactions with GMs. We had that 2015 experience and the two years watching and learning from Lou. We’ll just roll along. It’s a great opportunity to add – right now we have seven picks – seven young people we can add to our organization and put them into this development system and just keep rolling along, we hope.
Do you have any interest in moving up in the first round?
Dubas: We have interest in whatever we can do. I know some people say, “He’s only a trade down person.” I don’t know how that got to that point. I guess we did it twice, so, sure. But I think if there is an opportunity for us to add players who can help our team, we have the capital in draft choices to be able to do so. I don’t ever go into it saying, “We’re going to do X and Y.” We’re going to do whatever we can to help the team and keep it moving ahead. If that’s move up, or move down, or stay in the same spot and pick a player we like, that’s what we will do.
The trade deadline doesn’t seem to have as much traction anymore in terms of players moving as it does around the draft now, especially with the salary cap era. We saw the first kind of major deal go down yesterday. Has there been a lot of chatter with other GMs?
Dubas: When I first came into the job in mid-May, with everyone at the World Championships, it seemed very slow, relatively speaking. Really, from the combine on, I’ve noticed a big uptick in communications and talks between teams on what they’re looking to do. We had that sense. It seems that the draft – I’d agree – in the last number of years, the week up to the draft and the week after it into free agency, there seems to be a lot more action than there has in the past. It makes it exciting for the media, for sure. I just look at it as another opportunity for discussions we can have. If we can improve our team, we’ll take them.
You’ve got decisions on UFAs and RFAs and all of that coming up. Does it help how much you know the players down here and some of the guys that maybe you’ve already, in your own mind, pencilled in as having a chance to take the spots of some guys who won’t be back?
Dubas: I think the guys here… I know them because I’ve been with them. Some of them, if you look at Justin Holl, for three full seasons every day. But more importantly, to me, what this run afforded these players was the opportunity to increase how other people in the organization view them. The Leafs ended in late April. It was a month and a half or six weeks where they could watch these players every day without anyone else to watch besides the NHL playoffs. I think what that afforded these people is that now it’s not just me. Everyone can see what they are capable of day in and day out, game in and game out.
I’ve had a lot of people ask me – does the run change your view on players? I think it all does is affirms that the players in here are very capable – in very difficult circumstances in very tough series – of continuing to perform at their highest level. That’s exciting for our whole organization.
What do you make of the idea that Kyle Dubas has to make a big splash in his first few months as Leafs GM?
Dubas: It doesn’t affect me. We have to make good decisions. I don’t think I have to do anything big just to do so. I think that would be a disservice to the organization, frankly. It’s not about me. It’s about the players and the coaches. I don’t think there is any need for me to do anything that isn’t right for the organization. If what people describe as a big splash happens to make our team a lot better, then we’ll do it, but it’s not something that is important to me, at all.
How much does positional need factor into a draft as opposed to just taking the Best Player Available?
Dubas: Position need, to me, zero. We want to find the best players and draft them and bring them in. We can sort that out through trades and waivers after. The more good players we can get in, the better.
Have you made any firm decisions with your UFAs, to move on from any of them?
Dubas: Not necessarily firm. The door is always open. We are evaluating where things are at. They can start talking to teams on June 25. We’ll just take our time that we are afforded here and continue to stay in touch with their respective representations and roll from there.
Have there been many talks with those representatives?
Dubas: I’m not going to get into… You’ll never get that from me here, so I’m sorry. I graduated from that school, so yeah.
Did 2015 show you anything in terms of dealing with free agency?
Dubas: It’s tough to answer that because we are in a totally different situation now than where we were at in 2015. In 2015, I think we knew where we were at. Mike came into his press conference and promised that there would be pain. Our goal at that time was to sign players that, in the short term, could help our competitiveness of our group, and if our team wasn’t competitive – which we kind of had an idea that it wasn’t – that they would be lucrative for other teams to acquire. Not every one of those guys sort of panned out, but it was interesting to see the process and learn from that process – how we handled it. We are at a totally different stage with our team now than we were in 2015. We ended up finishing last. I’m sure everyone remembers that year.
How is this year different?
Dubas: I think our team is way more competitive and where we are at in our evolution as a franchise is way different. That year, in 2014-15, we weren’t very good. Then we finished last in 2015. Now, we’ve made the playoffs in back to back years. I think the exciting part about it is that our young players are still, certainly, not anywhere near their prime. We are going to get some progression from them and it’s up to us to push them to get there. But our franchise is at a totally different stage now.
Is the type of players you go after different?
Dubas: You’re just more open to… at that stage, it’s tough to say, “We’re going to sign these guys long term because they are difference makers.” Now, we have our own difference makers that are our core of our team. Now we can look at guys who can perhaps compliment our own core, which we didn’t have back then. It’s nice to be there. It’s hats off to the development staff and Mike and his staff and the whole organization for getting us there.
Mike said after Game 7, “This was a nice run, but we have to learn to take the different stages… There are still four stages above where we went.” What is your scouting report of where you are right now and how far are you from these stages that Mike is talking about?
Dubas: I think, with where we are at, we know where we are at. In our division, we finished behind Boston and Tampa, and then we lost to Boston in Round 1. The way I always look at things is that I really focus on our division. Playoffs are divisional, by and large, unless you get a cross-over with a wildcard team. But I really focus on our division. We know we finished behind Boston and Tampa. We know we have young players that are continuing to develop. We have to do everything we can, be as resourceful as we can, to continue to see those young players develop and reach their potential. That is critical for us. It’s always trying to move ahead of those two teams that are ahead of us right now.
We also have teams… Florida, in the second half of the year as Bob Boughner settled in as coach, made a strong run towards the playoffs. They are going to get better and continue to come. And then we have teams that have been historically great franchises that are retooling and are going to be after us as well. It’s going to be difficult. We have to continue to be resourceful as we can. We have a great coach in Mike. I expect he’ll get everything out of our group that he can. It’s up to me to continue to put our staff and our players into the best position we can and to make acquisitions and moves that continue to move us in that direction. I’ll walk out of here today and that will be my only focus.
Positionally, is there one place you’d like to strengthen more than others?
Dubas: I think anywhere we can get better, we will. That’s the stage we are at. In the past, it was somewhat positional. Lou’s trade for Freddy Andersen was huge for us. But other than that, anywhere we can get better, we have to.